Today was a historic day.  The first ever White House Community College was held in Washington, DC.  The veil that has been cast over the vital role community colleges has been lifted.

Read the transcript of the entire speech here.

My Community College Roots
I am proud to have seven years of experience as a full-time faculty member at a community college.  My former students still serve as inspirations to me.  I work at home now and keep letters, cards and artwork from former students nearby.  They were given to me as “thank you” gifts — for being an inspiration in their lives.  Today, those objects of gratitude motivate me every day.  I miss my students. And days like today make me miss teaching at a community college tremendously. 

I’ve shared this story before on my blog but think it deserves to be shared again.  My father, now a retired research chemist, came from an impoverished immigrant family in New Jersey.  He was the only child, out of fifteen siblings (yes, I said fifteen), to go to college.  In the 1960s he began his college experience after hearing a story about magical institutions of higher education in California that admit anybody … for free.  He left New Jersey on his own, drove across the country and enrolled at Porterville Community College.  After completing his associates degree, he transferred to San Jose State where he completed his BS and MS and then went on to complete his PhD in Chemistry from Iowa State University.

After college, my dad had a very successful career as a research scientist at IBM’s Almaden Research Lab.  His story plays a role in fueling my passion for learning.  He is seventy one now (and still learning, by the way). If you were to ask him today to reflect on his college “successes,” he would credit community colleges with granting him the opportunity to explore his dream — to learn.  But that rarely gets highlighted, as one continues with his/her life crediting their terminal degree granting institution, not the one that got them on the road to success.

A New Society Calls for a New Learning Paradigm
What’s dramatically different today is the fact that the internet extends opportunities to learn to anyone with web access.  We need to be rethinking the relevance of the college learning experience in the context of our digital, information society while we’re strengthening our community colleges. I believe that is key to this dialogue and I sincerely hope it played a major role at the summit today.  I believe the learning environments faculty, administrators, and staff create and support for community college students play a significant role in ensuring student success.  Dyslexic students, students with other forms of learning disabilities, english as a second language students, international students — these are just some of the demographics of a community college classroom.

Faculty, administrators and staff need to be supporting their learning by crafting inclusive learning environments which can be supported through the use of podcasting for “presenting information” and saving precious class time for applying the information, fostering higher order thinking skills, engaging in debates, sharing unique perspectives, working in teams and presenting projects.  Lecture is an exclusive learning environment.  Some students can succeed just fine through listening and taking notes but most cannot.  The human brain cannot listen and take notes at the same time — even without a learning challenge.  When you’re taking notes, your brain is processing the note-taking and is not listening to the lecture, creating gaps that the brain then needs to simultaneously fill in order to follow a presentation.

Moreover, students don’t feel confident enough to raise a hand and ask for clarification once, twice, three times in a lecture setting.  Podcasting provides opportunities to for students to receive the lecture content before of the classroom, stop/pause as necessary, and even learn mobility (on the bus, in the gym, etc.).  Moreover, podcasts (audio alone or video) can be accompanied by a text-based transcript.  When I shared lecture podcasts with transcripts with my students, only 15% of them chose to “only listen” to the podcast.  In a classroom, listening is your only option! 30% of my students chose to listen and read at the same time.  I believe this is significant and changes the way we frame “learning” in a college classroom.

Once the content is delivered, classroom time is spent on applying it through a variety of engaging activities and addressing questions along the way.  The lecture still plays a role but this model enables the freeing of classroom time to make learning relevant and community-based.  Students understand that they need to come to class so they can learn — rather than passively receive information.  The YouTube generation  has high expectations for face-to-face time.  They’ll tune out or — worse — never come back.  If the classroom experience can be replicated online then it should be.  It makes sense.  Spend face-to-face time on activities that cannot be replicated online.

I realize this shift rocks the traditional foundation of higher ed, considering lectures have been the method of college learning since the Middle Ages.  A new society that requires new skills calls for a new learning model.

New Opportunities for Community College Innovation
The day of dialogue included the announcement of several new innovative programs, offered to bolster student success and increase the completion rates for community college students.  Here they are (the following is excerpted from “Building American Skills by Strengthening Community Colleges,” publicly shared on the White Houses Community College website).

Get ready — grant funds will be allotted through a competitive application process.  The time to innovate is now! 

Gates Foundation: Completion by Design

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will announce Completion by Design, which aims to dramatically improve community college graduation rates by building on proven, existing practices to implement model pathways making the college experience more responsive to today’s student’s needs and education goals.  The competitive grant program is a $35 million investment over five years to 3-5 multi-campus groups of community colleges in nine states serving the largest populations of low-income students (Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington).  Completion by Design supports tough-minded campus- or college-based analysis to learn where along the education journey students are being lost and to design an intentional educational pathway that employs proven and promising practices at every critical moment from enrollment to credential completion. 

Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence
The Aspen Institute, the Joyce and Lumina Foundations, and the charitable foundations of Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase have partnered to announce a new, $1 million annual prize to recognize, reward, and inspire outstanding outcomes in community colleges nationwide. The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence will shine a spotlight on outstanding performers and rising stars that deliver exceptional results in student completion rates and workforce success; distill and share successful practices; and contribute to the development of high-quality, consistent measures and benchmarks for assessing community college outcomes. By focusing the field on a clear and bold definition of success, honoring excellence with prizes and prestige, and accelerating the spread of successful practices, the prize aims to galvanize the work of reform-minded educators, governors, employers, and community college presidents across the nation. The Aspen Prize will launch in the spring of 2011 and celebrate the first winners that fall.

Skills for America’s Future
On October 4, President Obama announced the launch of Skills for America’s Future, a new initiative to expand innovative strategies and improve the skills of America’s workers. Skills for America’s Future will build high-impact partnerships with industry, labor unions, community colleges and other training providers in all 50 states, all in support of the President’s goal of 5 million more community college graduates and certificates by 2020.
Skills for America’s Future is in response to a key recommendation by the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which spent the last year surveying employers about their workforce needs and development strategies.

Skills for America’s Future will be spearheaded by Penny Pritzker, Chairman and Founder, Pritzker Realty Group, and Walter Isaacson, CEO, Aspen Institute. Together, they will advance this effort by recruiting additional private sector leaders; providing a national voice for effective public/private partnerships in workforce development; developing a “certification” for best-in- class partnerships; and leveraging new opportunities for online learning, measuring program impact and sharing lessons learned. Several Fortune 500 companies, including PG&E, Gap Inc., McDonald’s, United Technologies, and Accenture, have already committed to support the Skills for America’s Future initiative and will work over the next year to expand their training partnerships to provide American workers the skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

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